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The Religious Affiliation of
the co-founder of Methodism
and one of history's greatest hymn writers
Although the Wesley brothers are widely regarded as the founders of the Methodist movement, they themselves were never technically members of a Methodist denomination. Officially, they were life-long Anglicans.
From: Alan C. Clifford, "Charles Wesley", most recent revision 4 October 1997, on The Christian Bookshop website (http://www.christian-bookshop.co.uk/free/biogs/cwesley.htm; viewed 13 August 2005):
The Revd. Charles Wesley, M A., 'sweet singer of Methodism' and arguably the greatest hymn writer ever, died on March 29th 1788. As a hymn writer he needs no introduction. His hymns show little sign of losing their appeal after more than 200 years. However, little else is commonly known about the life of one who was seemingly lost in his brother's shadow. When studies and biographies of John Wesley are never in short supply, the new biography of Charles Wesley by Arnold Dallimore 'A Heart Set free' is welcome indeed! Although the Methodist Church has every reason to remember Charles Wesley on what is also the 250th anniversary of the brother's conversion (May, 1738), evangelical people of all denominations have cause to thank God for hymns which are in a sense the property of us all...
Samuel Wesley's ambition was to make scholars and [Anglican] clergymen of his three sons [including Charles Wesley and John Wesley]... John was educated at Charterhouse, but Charles like his older brother Samuel - was sent to Westminster school... In June 1726, he entered Christ Church, Oxford. By then, John had been ordained and elected a Fellow of Lincoln College... After John returned for a while to Epworth to assist his father, Charles became deeply exercised about spiritual things. He gathered together some others who shared his new religious seriousness. Thus began the 'Holy Club' in 1729, its members soon to receive the nickname 'Methodists'. While John later became leader of the little group, it was started by Charles. Thus he was properly the 'first Methodist'. In 1732, George Whitefield of Pembroke College joined the group, and a close bond of friendship developed between himself and Charles Wesley who was now a College tutor.
There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit was at work in the lives of these young men. Even before they were delivered from the legalism of their sincere but lifeless religion - Whitefield was the first to find assurance of salvation in May 1735 - there were signs of life. On his death-bed in April 1735, old Samuel said to John, "The inward witness, son, the inward witness, this is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity." Laying his hand on Charles' head, Samuel said "Be steady. The Christian faith will surely revive in this kingdom. You shall see it; though I shall not."
...Charles accompanied John on the mission to the new colony of Georgia in 1735... Having recovered a measure of strength and self respect, Charles was soon meeting important people. Having been deeply impressed by the godly Moravians in America, he was similarly affected on meeting their leader Count Zinzendorf in London...
Charles was cheered by his brother's return from Georgia in February, 1738. He still hoped to return to Georgia as a missionary, but all expectations ended with a severe attack of pleurisy. Resuming academic life at Oxford seemed the only way ahead, but God had other plans for the Wesley brothers. They travelled to Oxford in April with the young Moravian Peter Bohler. From him they first learned the nature of true evangelical Christianity. Bohler's portrait of the brothers in a letter to Count Zinzendorf is very revealing: "The elder, John, is a good-natured man; he knew he did not properly believe in our Saviour, and was willing to be taught. His brother is at present very much distressed in his mind, but does not know how he shall begin to be acquainted with the Saviour."
...In the month of May 1738, the Wesleys were in London. Charles was recovering rom a recurrence of illness in the home of some Moravians in Little Britain, not far from St, Paul's Cathedral. Through the humble concern and sincere Christian testimonies of his hosts and others, Charles was deeply affected...
None can doubt the impact of Charles Wesley's conversion experience in May 1738. As D. M. Jones wrote, "After this experience Charles Wesley was for a time at least lifted quite above all timid intropection and anxious care about his own spiritual state. It seemed as if this release was all that was needed to make him a channel for immense spiritual forces."
Charles Wesley's new spiritual life was seen in his deep compassion for lost men and women. His preaching was quite transformed. He preached extempore for the first time at St, Antholin's Church in Bristol in October 1738. Unusual blessing was accompanying his powerful ministry.
By this time, George Whitefield's ministry was having an astonishing impact and he was severely criticised in London and Bristol. Charles Wesley stood at Whitefields side when he preached to an enormous crowd at Blackheath, and asked, "What has Satan gained by turning him out of the churches?" In May, Charles Wesley joined his brother in following Whitefield's example when he preached to large crowds in the Essex villages.
It has been said with some truth that if George Whitefield was Methodism's orator, and John Wesley its organiser, then Charles Wesley was its poet. However, this interesting view of the famous trio fails to acknowledge the impact of the Wesley's preaching. But if John Wesley was a greatly used preacher and evangelist, Charles himself was a preacher second only to Whitefield himself!
Subsequent hymn hooks for "The People called Methodists" (1779, 1877 (with Supplement), 1904, 1933 and 1983) and selections of Wesley's hymns in numerous other hymn books enable us to be familiar with the hymn-writer's unique gift. His fame and usefulness are guaranteed. However, we should not allow ourselves to forget his courageous evangelistic labours in which, for twenty years, he lifted up his voice for Christ.
During the early 1750s, Methodism was becoming a nationwide phenomenon. The intense persecution was beginning to subside. In days when many people travelled on horseback, you could tell a Methodist was coming by his singing. "We overtook a lad whistling one of our tunes," wrote Charles Wesley. It became increasingly clear that his labours were often taxing his strength...
The Wesleys moved to Chesterfield Street, Marylebone in London in 1771. Here Charles had effective oversight of the London Methodists. His ministry therefore continued but on a more local scale.
Webpage created 13 August 2005. Last modified 13 August 2005.
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